Written by
Changeboard Team

Published
21 Jun 2010

Obesity in the workplace? Promoting healthy eating at work

21 Jun 2010 • by Changeboard Team

What unhealthy employees mean for an organisation

Dr Ian Campbell, former director UK National Obesity Forum:

"Jamie Oliver has highlighted the positive effects that healthy eating has on children in their day at school - we now need to ensure this principle is applied to the workforce."

In 2007, the Department of Health reported that nearly 25% of the adult population were obese, proposing by 2010 more than 12 million adults will be obese. With an extra 25% of adults classified as overweight, we are a nation on a tipping point.

For employers, this creates extra obligations, including absorbing additional absenteeism costs generated from the associated chronic conditions; heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and cancer. The less chronic, but as important, issues of overall workforce performance include; motivation, stress management and emotional health issues such as depression and lack of self-esteem.

The cost of an unhealthy workforce

Obesity can result in type B malnutrition, multiple micro-nutrient depletion of vitamins and minerals which are essential for workplace productivity. An American study showed a significant difference in productivity levels of obese individuals versus their lean counterparts; suggesting over $43bn of revenue is lost each year. 

As an increasing amount of time is spent at work, it's essential that employers encourage a healthy living culture to remind staff how important it is to suitably nourish the body and do regular exercise. 

Night-shift workers and those with no kitchen/canteen facilities can be most at risk of developing unhealthy habits due to their lack of access to healthy options and are more susceptible to the external catering options which can be high in carbohydrates, fat and salt which exacerbate weight/health issues. A solution to this is education in food choices, preparation and storage options.

How can employers create healthy eating habits?

Increasing health awareness through education is the best way to establish healthy habits.

Very often people aren't aware of how their individual and collective habits impact on their health. Rather than focussing on diets, at Tinderbox we concentrate on adding-in rather than taking away; for example, increasing the level of nutritious food and exercise into the lifestyle in manageable ways.

It's important for employers to create a supportive environment to enable a healthy lifestyle within work. Flexible/staggered lunch breaks enabling people to take part in exercise groups and have time away from their desk to eat is essential in fostering the seeds of change to grow.

A step by step approach to healthy employees

Practical engagement:

Workshops, presentations and healthy food tasting days are the best form of education as they're practical, fun and make for perfect team building days. Different and new foods can be a Challenge to people so in-office tastings can be a clever way to encourage people to try new tastes. 

Employee wellness packages:

Including wellness as a benefit, bonus or incentive encourages employees to take advantage of services that they may not have considered. The benefit for both the employee and employer totally outstrips the costs.

Review current food offerings:

A full assessment of your in-house catering, meeting food and vending machines is essential to encourage healthy habits. Food thought of as bad can be healthy if it's cooked correctly, with fresh ingredients and correct portion sizes. Healthy menus can be created and simple changes like adding a traffic light labelling system makes it easier for people to make informed choices.

More than exercise:

Many overweight staff may feel intimidated by gym memberships and charity sporting Challenges. By introducing alternative activities such as a lunchtime walking club, yoga classes or even something fun such as hula-hooping or salsa can increase energy output but not be restrictive.

Bring your own & dont eat at your desk:

Encourage staff to bring in home prepared food by providing fridges, kitchen areas for warming food, utensils and plates as well as an eating area away from the desks. Research has shown that eating at the desk or on-the-go can lead to over-eating, poor food choice and reduced chewing, which in turn effects the digestion and absorption of nutrients from the food.

Healthy eating Challenges:

Link healthy eating to a charitable or inter-departmental Challenge with a reward. Emphasise increased water intake, different ways to eat fruit and vegetables, tips on how to reduce caffeine.

Encourage employees to be proactive about health

It's easy for health and nutrition to take a back seat if it's not viewed as being easily accessible. Encouraging employees to take a conscientious, proactive view towards their health and rewarding them through a bonus scheme is a win-win situation for the employer.

Providing wellness Benefits creates a nurturing and caring atmosphere. It can be a key motivator for employee loyalty and essential in an economic downturn when pay increases or promotions may not be possible. Employees profit from not only increasing their health prospects but also their self-esteem through better performance.

Health and wellbeing: joint responsibility

The responsibility of health and well-being at work should be shared between the employer and employee.

Through company-wide programmes of initiatives and Benefits, employers can create an environment which empowers employees to make positive choices regarding their health, rather than telling them what to do.